We easily forget that, at the heart of the word “question” is the word “quest”. This forgetfulness gives rise to a certain way of questioning that is merely functional. For example, I might ask one of the attendants in the supermarket, “Where is the washing powder?” or I might ask my doctor, “What is the best diet for me?”. It is probably fair to say that, for many, this merely functional questioning is the only kind of questioning.
There are indeed many situations where it is entirely reasonable to expect an answer to a question. But ultimately, we stand before life as a mystery, where questions have a different intent. Here there is the call to surrender, to be present in humility and awe, where the questioning is questing. It is an opening of the depths of one’s being to the Infinite. The intent is not answers but relationship – ever-deepening relationship.
In today’s Gospel – Mark 10:17-27 – a man asks a question of Jesus. The question is functional. He wants Jesus to solve a problem for him. Jesus refuses. Instead, Jesus invites the man to stand naked with him before the mystery. The man’s expectation of a how-to answer leaves him closed to the real quest.
The context of this exchange helps us to understand the text. Immediately prior to Mark’s account of the man running up to Jesus, falling on his knees and asking “What must I do to gain eternal life?”, there are two crucial points of context.
The first point of context is Mark’s statement: “He (ie Jesus) was setting out on a journey”. Jesus-on-the-way is a major theme in Mark’s Gospel. He asks the man to join him “on the way”. The most significant questions for those “on the way” are not functional questions. At the heart of being “on the way” is questing. The important questions are always about questing, opening one’s self to the Infinite. Living is restlessness. If we care to notice, we are always in unknown territory. Like the people of old, we have no map, no answers. We only have God who has promised to be with us – see Exodus 3:1-14.
The second point of context is Jesus’ declaration: “‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’” (10:15-16). This is a confronting declaration for any adult in any era, let alone one living in a world that is ruthlessly dominated by powers of one kind or another. We can have some sympathy for the man who was unable to accept Jesus’ invitation.
Perhaps we too would have gone away shocked, grieved? If Jesus had given the man – us – a moral program, even a demanding moral program, we might conceivably take that up with some energy. Instead, Jesus invites us to journey with him . . .